v1.9 / Denis Roussel’s Aesthetics of Waste

“I spent 3 years diving into my compost and recycling bins and have been amazed at the richness of subjects I find there.”

“Waste”: from the Latin vastūs, vast, or vastitas, desolation. It’s a word that implies a loss of value, a loss of substance, a loss of integrity. Fortunately, there are artists like Denis Roussel who see through the façade of loss, who find new beauty in the wastes. Check out Roussel’s unique and innovative work at www.denis-roussel.com, and stop by LensCulture to see Roussel’s new “paper negatives” and “food waste” series (pics below)!

Denis Roussel: On Compost & lumen

For several years, my compost and recycling bins were my muses. Whenever I felt the need to create a photograph, I would rummage through my family’s waste and pick specimens that caught my eye. Through my photographic processes, these remnants of daily life were reborn into remarkable images—a transformation that mirrors the one that occurs naturally through the composting and recycling processes: wasted food scraps become a valuable soil amendment; recycled items are resurrected into usable objects.

I had always wanted to work on an environmentally conscious project, but whenever I started thinking about the issues at hand, I became overwhelmed by the complexity of the problems. How could I explore pollution prevention or remediation, for example, without taking into account economic considerations, inequalities, population growth, consumption, agriculture, etc.? Everything seemed interconnected and I didn’t know where to start.

Then I realized I could focus on simple concrete actions like composting and recycling. They are easy to do, but can have a significant impact on climate change and provide a practical entryway into an environmentally-conscious life.

I produced two series on composting.

The first series was created with the wet-plate collodion process, which generates luscious one-of-a-kind images. I enjoy the idea of making a rare object (all the more valuable for its rarity) out of discarded waste. I carried this concept throughout the project on composting and recycling, eventually making more than eighty unique objects.

The second series is made up of lumen prints. I love using lumen printing for the compost items because it has as a very unique aesthetic – at the crossroad of x-ray imaging and printmaking – but above all because the process itself represents a wonderful metaphor for composting. The images result from light exposure and chemical reactions between the organic matter (breaking down under the action of light and heat) and the chemicals in the paper.

To make a lumen print, I place elements from my compost bin directly on the surface of B&W photo paper. I usually sandwich this between two pieces of glass and set all of this in the sun. The paper progressively darkens under the action of light, and under the organic matter an image slowly forms. Exposures can run from twenty minutes to several hours. I often use juice from the compost items to refine the composition and to make it a little more complex and engaging.

When presenting the lumen prints, I include the date of creation in the title, in order to hint at the way our food is produced – and possibly spark a discussion about the oddity of finding strawberries at the grocery store in the middle of winter, for example.

The anthotypes represent a perfect transition between the series on the compost and the series on recycling.

My “photographic” material is a piece of paper coated with vegetable juice. I either extract juice from elements of my compost (rotten spinach that I would crush with a mortar and pestle) or use discarded cooking water (when cooking beet or blanching red cabbage). After I coat the paper, I expose it to the sun through a transparency that has a photograph of an object from my recycle bin on it. Where the paper is not covered (where there is a highlight in the photograph) the emulsion is bleached. Under the shadow area of the photograph, the emulsion is virtually unchanged. Eventually I obtain a fairly detailed image. The exposure times vary from one day to several weeks. Making anthotypes is a very interesting process that produces delicate and fragile images.

The simplest and most versatile of all the alternative processes is cyanotype. I open up cereal boxes, pasta boxes, pizza boxes and so on, and coat the inside of the boxes with cyanotype chemicals. Once everything is dry, I place objects from my recycle bin directly on the surface of the coated cardboard and expose all of this to sunlight, making a photogram.

When the exposure is done, the cyanotype develops in water. The end product is a beautiful blue print of the object’s shadows cast onto the light sensitive surface. Making photograms like these is a mental exercise because you choose your objects according to their ability to block light or let it pass, not according to their shapes or forms. It is not the object itself that is of interest but the shadows that it produces. It obliges you to look at the objects in a new way.

The last series of the exhibition was one of the most challenging to produce. I had the idea in mind for a while: I wanted to capture on recycled glass containers images of other recycled objects, and I wanted to do this in the camera. To achieve this I used the exact same chemicals that produced the tintype compost. Tintypes are one of the three kinds of photographs one can produce with the wet-plate collodion process. They are shot on a piece of aluminum coated with black enamel paint. Ambrotypes are another type of wet-plate collodion photograph. Instead of being captured on aluminum, they are shot on glass and depending on how they are displayed they either look like negative or positive images. The recyclotypes are a peculiar version of ambrotypes.

To produce my recyclotype I used a homemade pinhole camera, which is a light-tight box with a tiny hole on one side to let light in. This little hole projects an image of the outside world on the inside of the camera. Using this tool is really like going back to the fundamentals of optics and the making of a photograph. My pinhole camera is made of a reused suitcase in which the glass containers are set to be exposed. The method of making the ambrotypes explains the aesthetic of the images that are capture – they are somewhat soft and sometimes highly distorted.




Text & Images © Denis Roussel